If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s fair to say that American Catholic school students in the early 20th century were, in a way, the mothers of Catholic women theologians.
In 1943, Sister Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., then president of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, founded the School of Sacred Theology. “Madeleva’s primary concern in establishing the school had been a practical one: to ensure adequate preparation for those actually teaching theology in the Catholic school system, most of whom were nuns,” writes Gail Porter Mandell in her book Madeleva: A Biography.
“Madeleva never forgot her own experience as a young sister of having been thrust into a classroom on a day’s notice before completing either her novitiate or her college degree.… She was assigned classes in French and Latin, even though she had mastered neither language…. As the need arose, she also took over classes in theology and philosophy, painfully aware of her lack of preparation to teach either. Unfortunately, her experience was the rule, not the exception, among young nuns.”
But Wolff—who went on to earn her PhD from Berkeley in 1925—was also aware of the lack of any opportunity for laypeople to study graduate-level theology at Catholic institutions. When Saint Mary’s School of Sacred Theology opened in 1943, it was the only place. Pope Pius XII formally approved the school in 1944.
By the time of the school’s 10th anniversary, enrollment averaged between 20 and 30 students during the academic year, and more than 100 students during the summer session. With nearly 3 million U.S. children in Catholic elementary schools, half a million students in Catholic high schools, and 100,000 in Catholic women’s colleges, Mandell highlights the comment of Bishop Edwin O’Hara in his speech on the occasion: “How overwhelming the demand for the advance of religious education on the part of teachers in our Catholic schools! How many times the facilities of the Saint Mary’s School of theology must be multiplied…if this need on the highest level is to be met.”
In 1954, the Vatican modeled its own graduate school of theology for women, Regina Mundi, after the Saint Mary’s. As existing graduate theology programs in the United States began to accept women as students, Saint Mary’s began to phase out the school. Before it closed in 1970, the School of Sacred Theology granted 76 doctoral and 354 master’s degrees to both religious and lay women, as well as several lay men.
This article is a web-only feature that accompanies In their footsteps: What women theologians have done for the church, which appeared in the January 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 1, pages 12-17).